Seeing out loud

A blog of illustrations & ideas by Catherine Stones

Made Mermaid



On a recent visit to Hull’s Maritime Museum (in my home town) I found this handsome fellow or is it a pretty maid? When x-rayed it turns out not to be a mermaid at all but is part-monkey skull with ivory teeth and glass eyes, part fish tail and part wire. In the 1820′s a similar beautiful ‘mermaid’ toured Beverley near Hull, much to the amazement of the flocking crowds. According to the museum the earliest fake mermaid dates back to the sixteenth century and by the eighteenth century there was real (fake) mermaid mania! What I particularly loved about seeing this mermaid was how different it was to the mermaids/sirens I’d just seen (in the Feren’s Art Gallery not in the marina!). Ulysses and the Sirens is a beautiful painting and the sirens in it are seductive and beautiful. It’s a relief that Herbert James Draper used his imagination and didn’t cross Queen Victoria Square to see these examples.

In reaction to the visit, my mermaid constructs herself – cutting herself with a razor clam and sewing herself up with fishing wire.  She stitches herself up as well as us. Perhaps real mermaids faked themselves to keep their secret safe and pulled such horrible expressions above so that we wouldn’t come looking for them?  My mermaid is smart too – she keeps her own collection of fish in her tail which she uses to keep her modesty. She’s clearly a much harder catch than Draper’s sirens and probably just as deadly.


An Outing for ‘Coming Out Stories’


I’ve not blogged for a while because I’m currently knee deep in illustrating women’s ‘coming out’ stories – a project that I’ve wanted to do for years and have finally given myself permission to do. The project is called ‘Oh, but you wear lipstick’ (a homage to a ‘one liner’ a mother said to her daughter in response to the coming out moment). The project is not easy and continues to be a fascinating challenge, one which should accompany me for most of this year.

The project involves interviewing gay women (mostly people I don’t know – amazingly generous women in the U.S., Venezuela and the UK so far) and then visually representing an aspect of their coming out story. The plan is to create a series of at least 15 pictures, so one picture might work on its own but it also has to work as a set. One way I’ve done that is to set a size (a fairly large size of 70x100cm) for each picture and I’ve also created a set of common characters – one ‘mother’ is used for every mother in every story. Also there is a need to respect each story and its diversity (and wow, are they diverse!) – both in terms of adding a concept and retaining original words the women have recounted. So yes, it’s difficult and at the moment it’s difficult to think of anything else!

What is really wonderful is the opportunity to share the first three stories (the image above is a detail from one of the visual stories) with a new audience at Leeds City Art Gallery on the 22nd February. I’m giving a talk about the project and showing images as part of the ‘Queer Culture Project’, a new project to engage the LGBT community with art and creative activity in Leeds.

So my images get their first outing, as do three women’s stories. If you’re in Leeds and are interested then please come along (coming out is optional!).

The muddle and mystery of ‘misfits’


20131221-150751.jpgHere are the results of a matching card game called ‘Misfits’ from the 1960′s that I recently played with friends. Scoring is only achieved if you can match both legs, allowing endless odd combinations above the waist line. It’s interesting to note the lack of women (except for a token ‘exotic’ woman from honolulu) and the controversial representation of a black character, though you could say that no one fairs very well – they’re a motley crew.

More broadly the game also reminds us of how random and accidental our own characters are. We’re all misfits in some ways and our parts can change, sometimes matching harmoniously with one another and other times causing discordance, depending on the hand we’re dealt at the time. Virginia Woolf in Orlando says the most wonderful thing about nature and unpredictability:

“Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November, 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the mast-head ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon: Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer “Yes”; if we are truthful we say “No”; nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, has further complicated her task and added to our confusion by providing not only a perfect ragbag of odds and ends within us—a piece of a policeman’s trousers lying cheek by jowl with Queen Alexandra’s wedding veil—but has contrived that the whole assortment shall be lightly stitched together by a single thread. Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after.”

The unpredictability of the game, and of life, is what keeps us coming back for more, surely. With Christmas just 3 days away I hope there is game playing opportunities a-plenty so here’s to reshuffling the pack, dealing the hand and making the best of what we have and what comes next.

Marvelous Margaret


One of Margaret’s quotes (detail from one of my pictures)

As a creative woman, it’s important to have heroines and to be inspired and encouraged by what women can do. It’s so important to stay focused on what you can do at the same time and to not be distracted. When a beautiful poster arrived from the States the other day by american artist Margaret Kilgallen, I was struck again by just how much I love her work and her spirit, which tragically ended too soon. Watching one of the short films made about her (and indeed her own heroines) says it all really. I like to think that her daughter that survived her will go on to be equally wonderful in the world.

Margaret Kilgallen’s work is bold – large scale, directly and confidently painted onto walls, trains and wooden boxes. Her re-occuring motifs are quietly reassuring –  figures caught in conversation, fairground vernacular typefaces and random phrases – often repeated but somehow never dull. She had a natural feel for colour though used a limited palette. Her brushed curved lines were impressively smooth. It seems regularity of line was a constant holy grail for her – she declared that the ‘hand wobble’ evident in a line was what made it really beautiful.

Heroines don’t leave the building or pack their bags in your mind, they stay with you for your whole life, ebbing then flowing when something suddenly reminds you of them. Feverishly you then hunt out their work, recapturing that spark that lit you up the first time you saw their pictures. As the autumn nights begin to darken thank goodness for other sources of warmth and light such as Margaret’s.


An unrequited love for playing cards


After a fascinating visit to the Playing Card Museum in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Northern Spain the other day, I can honestly say that it was gutting to leave without an amazing pack in my pocket. After seeing beautiful design after beautiful design it was awful to see a museum shop without one pack on sale.  My only option was to take some photographs, which was still a delight. The museum boasts the world’s largest collection of cards –  6000 apparently. It did however also feature movement-triggered cabinet lighting that meant dancing like St Vitus if you wanted to look at a full cabinet for more than 10 seconds. Needlesstosay, I probably lost weight in there.

How wonderful to learn that early cards had to be played only one way up and that they couldn’t easily be fanned in the hand (as both suit and number were not often in the corner in early packs).  How interesting and disturbing that sometimes they had racial and political motivations such as these shown below from England.




It was fascinating to see the various arrangements of the suits and the quality of the illustrations that accompanied different packs.

Even more amazing though to see the cabinet where the diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades had been cleverly integrated into the designs with enormous sophistication (called ‘transformation cards’). Look at the complexity of these compositions from the 19th century, dating back to 1806. 20130807-205320.jpg


On reflection, just catching a dancing glance of a radical graphic innovation that’s 200 hundred years old was more than worth the disappointment of not being able to take a card home. Instead it gives you a new appreciation for every shape of diamond, every illustration and every composition on the pack you’ve got at home and that’s why museums offer an experience money just can’t buy.

Girl uninterrupted

20130718-155319.jpgThis charcoal life drawing and monoprint were both done on Tuesday using a continuous line with no break allowed. Have you ever drawn something in one continuous line? It’s incredibly liberating. To draw uninterrupted stops moments of hesitation. To draw never taking pen from paper allows such a lot of freedom at the same time as it constrains. The question of ‘how do I get from here to there’ when one line ends  is, surprisingly, never a problem. We move our eyes from ‘here’ to ‘there’ all the time, not worrying what we take in during the gaps. When drawing with a continuous line the journey to the next starting point creates an important and beautiful element of the drawing even creating volume sometimes.
Drawing continuously also facilitates flow, both literally in the line and mentally during the activity. Nothing else matters but moving the line from A to B and possibly back again at some point, rollercoaster style. Flow, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I name I’d love to drop in during lectures but daren’t of course!) is when we lose ourselves in a task and lose track of time. Flow aids creativity and, most importantly, it facilitates pleasure – that golden nugget we all chase.

Flow requires uninterrupted activity and this may seem hard to achieve sometimes given the many sources of distraction, particularly the distractions of the internet. I remember reading many years ago about the conceptual notion that people would pay to go offline in the future (imagine…). A colleague of mine recently stated that he wanted to make his workspace a web-free zone, cut off from the wireless in his house. Blocking software that cuts off access to the web and social networks is increasingly popular. I’m not sure we need all this though. If you’re involved enough in any activity and achieve the flow status it might just be powerful enough to stem the never ending barrage of distractions. Let’s not blame the web of distraction. Let’s blame what we’re choosing to do right now that the web pulls us from.  The mantra then must be ‘find the thing that helps facilitate flow in you’. If you’re pulled around the web without purpose maybe it’s because what you’re doing right now just isn’t flowing for you. Instead we could pick up that pen, that charcoal, that guitar, that baking tray, that bicycle, that petition etc. and draw our own uninterrupted line.

Tickled by the Ivory


This is an inuit ivory bow drill that is owned by the British Museum that I was lucky enough to glimpse in a cabinet last week. It’s a fascinating object telling us how the inuit people used to hunt seals (though it seems unclear what the date of the piece is – anything from 18-20th century when I try and find similar objects). What I particularly love is the level of detail – the smiles on the faces of the seals, the size of the seals in relation to the men (they look like friendly sea monsters) and the sequence of events, lovingly told. 20130709-091113.jpg


Look at this tussle going on between three men. What did the middle man do? Perhaps try to steal some meat for himself? Or are they helping him to get dressed in special garments for preparing the meat? Despite their primitive nature they are wonderfully expressive in terms of body posture.20130709-091138.jpgOf course we learn that they stored the meat close to their houses and they kept dogs as helpers. This dog reminds me of a Lowry dog –  wonderfully crude and imperfect in looks but all the energy of the real thing.

If we carved out our day as a sequence I wonder whether it would be full of so much drama? Would it be that good that people would feel compelled to lean over cabinets in wonder, to take photographs and to stitch them together to share? Would it end up in the ‘Enlightenment’ room in the British Museum? Perhaps we should pick up some carving tools and find out…

From thrones to gallows


This picture was initiated by two diagrams in ‘The Practical Carpenter and Joiner’ about types of roof trusses – the King post and the Queen post. This led me to look at the rather bad behaviour of our past monarchs. Here we have Henry VIII and his daughter Mary I (‘Bloody Mary’ to some). It turns out that between them they executed and burned tens of thousands of people. These beams were clearly put to poor use – from thrones to gallows or fire wood.


20130626-203717.jpgThe image is made entirely from the diagrams and two other illustrations from the book. Here we see a lot of layering of the king’s tunic. The poor figure destined for the stake is made almost entirely of wood as if she knew what was coming, making Mary’s job that little bit easier…

Safe Shoring

20130625-160937.jpgI’ve found myself looking at diagrams again, and in particular the labels on them. I love looking at and responding to them  - ‘what can I alter to make me think slightly differently about the world?’.  The way language is borrowed and re-used from different disciplines is fascinating, ever confusing us as to which use came first.

This adjusted image is taken from ‘The Practical Carpenter and Joiner’ probably from the 1950′s (it’s an undated book  unfortunately). Imagine a blunt oak needle, sewing wood together. This is what I call an ‘anticipation image’ – one which gives more satisfaction in us acting it out mentally more than its outward appearance.

The diagram is taken from a section on shoring  - ‘the temporary strengthening of a building the stability of which is threatened by damage’. Interestingly ‘safe shoring’ can often be a dangerous job and can even lead (at least in the 1950s) to walls actually falling down. Let’s hope for some ‘safe safe shoring’ in that case…

Life is Sweet

20130603-205432.jpg The Illustration Friday word this week is ‘Sweet’. Imagine if we ate so many sweets our teeth turned to sugarcubes?

Apparently sugar used to be bought as loaves, which had to be cut using implements called ‘nips’. Thank goodness then for Moravian Jakub Kryštof Rad, who invented the sugarcube in 1843 and made our lives a whole lot easier.

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